This story is part of a feature that first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s September 2022 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:
By Jill Macdonald
Art is an opportunity to encounter new perspectives and to reconsider the familiar. It presents new ideas and relationships, giving us an avenue to review our assumptions. Framing this exploration of iconic Revelstoke images required a long swim through turbulent water – such is the experience of self-evaluation.
As I review my relationship with Revelstoke, I realize we are still just acquaintances; we are not close friends yet. I have a sense of the place and its history, but there are only gleams shining through the shell. This scanty impression is not solely a function of time spent here, it is more about interaction and allowing perceptions to flow through, like a rip tide. Be carried, don’t resist, don’t presume to already know.
With that in mind, we begin with the celebrated Canadian artist E. J. Hughes as the outsider, looking in.
A quick internet query resulted in multiple threads leading toward the same painting. E.J. Hughes, born in 1913, grew up on the west coast of B.C. He was a reclusive person, never attended any of his art shows and struggled to make a living until his first break in 1951, when he was given $500 for a dozen paintings. With financial ease, he was free to explore. Revelstoke was one of his destinations.
Above Revelstoke (1963), pictured here, was the largest canvas in his portraits of our town. In it, we see his signature brilliant colours, lush greenery, and the magical quality of his depictions built on rhythm, patience and a sense of wonder. There is no tension, no battles with wilderness or change, and no history. Out of step with the trend of his time, Hughes’ style was not abstract; it was sharp and detailed. At times he suffered doubt when his works were compared to photographs, thoughts he was able to squelch. “I continue painting realistic things because a painter can add something a photographer hasn’t got. It is a form of worship. I am showing my appreciation to these Creations.”
Hughes made two trips here and took meticulous notes and drawings. In rendering what he felt, he infused his art with the awe of a visitor. He came, he saw, he was transported.
We shift from an outsider’s perspective to a person who has always called Revelstoke home. Greta Speerbrecker has been painting since she was a teenager and took classes with the masterful and personable Sophie Atkinson, founder of the Revelstoke Arts Group.
Speerbrecker credits Atkinson for exposing her to colour flow, teaching her to include all the colours in a scene and the importance of blending the background. “Watercolours are the most difficult style of painting to master,” she says. As a student of Atkinson, she learned to see things differently, a talent that has not left her. There is a gentle intimacy to her work, a casual familiarity that is neither bold nor careless; her artistry is respectful, quiet and mainly pastoral.
Still going strong at 85 years old, her new craze is for alcohol inks, which she paints in a style she calls “loose.” It entails putting down bright colours and manipulating them with a dry brush, or an airbrush and gradually revealing the forms within. Speerbrecker claims she can no longer achieve the detailed brushstrokes of her younger years, but she is modest.
The underlying serenity of Speerbrecker’s works reveals a Revelstoke that simply is itself. Like her flower gardens that she calls “wild,” nothing is tamed or tortured, it is free to grow as it will, mixing with weeds and wandering through the trees, unfussed, steadfast.
So far, we have reverence for our mountains and landscapes. It is tempting to rest within that category because it’s familiar and comfortable, but there has to be an underbelly, or we can’t be telling a true story. Along comes Maria Medina to turn things on their head.
Medina spent her childhood in Revelstoke. After travelling the world, she has come full circle and once again lives here, where she maintains an active painting studio. She brings us a response to this landscape that is at once surprising and delightful. It is also unexpected.
“My work is a reaction against what I see,” she explains. “I am surrounded by green. Lots of artists choose to focus on their surroundings, but my work is an exaggeration of colour and detail.”
Medina collects objects and stores them in curated cubbies in her studio. To compose her paintings, she arranges the objects into narratives, then adds elements to create vignettes that are not quite true.
“My painting is a response to growing up in this environment. When I paint, I don’t paint a bee or a flower, I paint a series of lines and shadows and their relationship to one another, positive and negative spaces. The result is a face or a nose.” Or a bird eating a bee.
Her uncanny ability to notice and capture the minutiae, her sense of humour and her willingness to express tension and potential conflict, pokes us in the ribs and asks the question: “How is this a response to Revelstoke?”
Medina’s Bird Eaters seemed an unlikely fit to include; they are sharp and pesky. But they are unforgettable and tenacious. After seeing them, it is impossible not to notice those flowers in gardens around the city and to watch the interactions between insects and birds. This is another layer of Revelstoke, a peeling back of thinking about local sensibilities.
When objects and places come at us differently, we have the opportunity to reimagine the everyday. That is the surprise of artistic interpretation. Look closer. Look inward. Look away and look back.